Facebook Commentary Not Defamatory
The legal system continues to grapple with the intersection of tort law and social media. The recent Tennessee Court of Appeals case Weidlich v. Rung examines the circumstances under which a Facebook post could constitute defamation.
The parties’ dispute has roots in a public controversy regarding the formation of a Gay/Straight Alliance at Franklin County High School. In February 2016, a large town hall meeting was held at the school. Plaintiff Lisa Rung attended and Defendant Robert Weidlich also attended. At the meeting Weidlich expressed his strong opposition to the Gay/Straight Alliance and also allegedly made some outlandish comments that caused some people there to begin calling Weidlich and his wife “the Fisty Family.” Weidlich’s wife, Loretta Weidlich, was, at the time, preparing to run for Franklin County School Board.
Following one of the meetings, Rung observed Mr. Weidlich’s car in the parking lot. She knew it was Weidlich’s car because the Weidlich family name was spelled out in a bumper sticker above a cartoon version of the family. There were numerous other bumper stickers: one displayed a Confederate flag next to the word “SECEDE”; one read “God, Family, The South” next to another Confederate flag; and another read “The League of the South.” Rung took a picture of the back of the vehicle and posted it on Facebook with the following caption: “Free Bonus Prize. The Fisty Family are also white supremacist! We’ll need to keep this handy come election time.”
Weidlich sued Rung for defamation. The General Sessions Court found for Rung, concluding that Weidlich had been unable to establish damages. Weidlich then appealed to the trial court where the matter was tried in September 2016. There was testimony from Rung about Mrs. Weidlich’s bid for School Board and why that made her a public figure, though Weidlich pointed out that his wife was not actually a candidate at the time of the post. Weidlich, a mechanic, offered testimony from a customer who was enraged when he saw the post and took $7,000 of business elsewhere for a period of time.
The trial court ruled in Weidlich’s favor, awarding him $7,000 in compensatory damages and $5,000 in attorney’s fees. In its order, the trial court concluded that the Weidlichs were not public figures; that the statement posted on Facebook sounded more like fact than opinion; that Rung had absolutely no proof that the Weidlichs were, in fact, white supremacists; and that Rung absolutely knew what type of label this is and made the post anyway, thus showing that she acted maliciously and negligently. Rung appealed.
The Court began its analysis with the basic law of defamation. To make a prima facie case of defamation, the plaintiff must establish the following elements: (1) a party published a statement; (2) with knowledge that the statement was false and defaming to the other; or (3) with reckless disregard for the truth of the statement or with negligence in failing to ascertain the truth of the statement.
The Court examined what kind of statement constitutes a defamatory statement: “The words must reasonably be construable as holding the plaintiff up to public hatred contempt or ridicule. They must carry with them an element of disgrace.” Brown v. Mapco Express, Inc., 393 S.W.3d 696, 708 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2012). Notably, “comments upon or characterizations of published facts are not in themselves actionable.” Stones River Motors, Inc. v. Mid-South Publ’g Co., Inc., 651 S.W.2d 713, 720 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1983).
The Court examined the image of the actual Facebook post itself and actually included a screenshot of the Facebook post in its opinion. The Court observed that the statement should not be viewed apart from the accompanying photograph of the back end of the Weidlich’s vehicle. The Court noted that posting simply “The Weidlichs are white supremacists” without the accompanying photo would be totally different. Here, however, the caption to the photograph expressed Rung’s commentary about already known published facts, insofar as Weidlich himself put forth certain political connotations and meanings by displaying those particular bumper stickers on his car. The Court concluded that “Rung’s Facebook post expressed an opinion on disclosed facts consisting of the imagery and symbolism presented in the photograph.” As such, the post was not defamatory.
The judgment of the trial court was reversed.
Post by Donald Capparella
Return to main blog page